For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
For a lot of people, stripped of their productivity, daily focus and sense of purpose, retirement can be a difficult period of adjustment.
Morpeth-based David Cromarty didn’t have time to consider any of that, for one simple reason: “I bought a Riley One Point Five.”
Little did he know that it would turn him into an adventurer, scouring the length of Great Britain, a part-time parts dealer and an apprentice body man.
“The One Point Five was the hot little saloon of its day and my dad had one when they were current, so I’d always fancied one,” he explains.
His search began in 2009 and, after looking at five examples – some advertised as concours – he found himself at Pembrokeshire Classic Investments: “There weren’t many good ones. Owners tend to get a nice paint-job and forget the underside – they had no underseal when new.”
Dealer Richard Hill’s example looked stunning, too. “I knew what I was getting, though,” says Cromarty. “Someone had paid about £500 for a ‘restoration’ and the box sections at the top of the wings were just a bit of tin plate tapped and bent over.
“However, it had only done 38,000 miles and had a beautiful interior – still with the factory BMC plastic on the rear seats. Compared to others I’d seen, the floorpans, chassis rails and spring hangers were mint, so I bought it.”
He was still working when he did so, and had intended to refresh the car slowly in three stages, but then his employer made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse and he retired.
With the Riley back in Northumberland an acquaintance, body man Mattie Bell, came to assess it: “Looking at the driver’s side, he said ‘the car’s sunk’. He asked if I’d needed to adjust the driver’s door, which I had, and said that it had previously had a repair to the sill and he’d prove it to me when it came to doing them.”
This provided the spark to embark on a full restoration: “I’d do the legwork, my friend Dan Atkins would help me weld, and then Mattie would oversee the body side of things.”
An explanation was required for his wife Eleanor, who had fallen in love with the Riley on sight, thought it beautiful and couldn’t believe it needed repair – until he pointed out why: “She thought I’d been had, but no old car is perfect. I also told her ‘they’re really cheap to do’…”
The project started in early 2010, with the car stripped and running gear, engine and gearbox removed.
The underside was taken back to bare metal then Bell proved his point: “He jacked up the car by the driver’s-side sill and said, ‘Try and shut the door now.’ It wouldn’t close. He let it down and the door shut: ‘There you go.’” New jacking points were made, and inner and outer sills were fitted.
With the front wings and panel removed, it was time to attack the inner wings; new top rails were fabricated and welded into place, as were the box sections, with factory spot-welds replicated.
“He had a funny sense of humour, Mattie,” says Cromarty. “He brought this spot-welder that belonged to a Ford dealer in the ’50s and said: ‘The last time I used this I blacked out a street in Bedlington.’ I have a heavy-duty socket in the garage but, of course, on the fourth spot-weld everything went bang – I didn’t dare look out onto my street!”
The crossmember had also been repaired. Cromarty says you shouldn’t jack up a One Point Five by it, but they did so to check if anything crumpled: “It didn’t, so we got a repair section, I braced the car and removed it.
“At one time I’d been manager of a welding department, so I can weld. Mattie guided me – ‘do this, cut that’ – then we replicated the 29 factory spot-welds.”
They settled into a working arrangement, with Cromarty being left ‘homework’.
Atkins would help with the welding, then Bell would return the following night after work to check if he liked it or not: “It was a cracking combination. Dan is gung-ho but a great welder, while Mattie took his time getting references to ensure that everything was absolutely spot-on.”
Rear valance repair sections were made, fitted into position then lead-loaded, and rear wheelarch repair sections – borrowing a new-old-stock rear wing for reference – were fitted.
“At that point, Mattie wanted to return to the sills,” recalls Cromarty. “He wasn’t happy with the profile. We’d become good friends, and for him it had turned into more than work. He told us, ‘I like coming here;’ so we redid the sills.”
Having completed the structure, Cromarty set about sourcing new panels – it would take three years, and involve a fair few shenanigans.
He explains: “I advertised in classic mags for genuine BMC front wings – it’s surprising how many calls you get. Then the phone went, and an Irish accent said: ‘I’m Marshal Fenton and I have your wings.’ He sent me some photos; I had a question mark over whether they were new, but they were a hell of a lot better than I had.”
Cromarty and friend Tom Cotterill – who’d fabricated the inner-wing sections – travelled to Northern Ireland by ferry; as they approached the port, Cromarty’s phone went.
“It was Marshal,” he explains. “He said, ‘Look out for me, I’m with a silver Yeti.’ We made a quick payment, shook hands and went back on the return boat.
The ferry people were comedians, too: a big, officious-looking lady looked at the wings and said, ‘Ah, this is the new ruse – strip the car down, ship it across and reassemble!’”
His gut instinct had been right: they weren’t new old stock, but then a retired dentist in Hackney called him offering one that was. So the following week, he was back down south to Epsom to swap Marshal’s wings for another one.
“I also advertised for the Holy Grail: front grille side slat units,” says Cromarty. “Again I got a phone call: ‘It’s Martin, from Northern Ireland,’ said the voice, as if I’d known him all my life.
“He’d got them in 1970 from a BMC garage that was closing down. I phoned my new mate, Marshal: ‘He’s about 40 miles away, I’ll go right now.’ He bought them and said they’d clean up. They arrived green, but we managed to strip them and they went to Derby Plating – at £30 per slat! – with the rest of the brightwork.”
Having searched for a Mk3 front panel without luck, Cromarty eventually settled for a Mk1 unit: “I got it through the Owners’ Club and it would need modifying for the later lights but, you wouldn’t believe it, the phone went at 9am the day after – another stranger: ‘Why are you buying a Mk1 front panel? I have a brand new Mk3 one in my garage…’
“We met up in a car park in Chesterfield, swapped front panels and went our separate ways. I’ve journeyed the length and breadth of the UK for parts.”
Having ventured to Pembrokeshire once again, this time to buy a Labrador puppy (Cooper), on his return Cromarty popped into Oselli.
Impressed by the facilities, he commissioned a full ‘Stage 2’ balanced engine rebuild and unleaded conversion.
The gearbox, differential and propshaft were sent to Hardy Engineering in Surrey to be rebuilt.
“I got cracking with the body,” he recalls. “The bare-metal inner wings and floors were painted with 2k primer and finished in body colour. I fitted the bonnet and front wings, but they looked as if they were from a different car – the bonnet was about an inch too short.”
Cue the return of Mattie: “He asked for lots of wood, put it between the bonnet and bulk-head and proceeded to roughly manhandle it back and forth, before dropping some wood underneath the front and standing on it. ‘That’s it,’ he said, as it closed perfectly. It’d flown up at some point and bent the hinges – without his years of experience you’d never have known.”
That only served to show up the poor fit of the wings. Bell explained that the factory had almost certainly discarded them for that reason, so they were lead-loaded to get the gaps perfect.
“That’s where this car really scores,” says Cromarty. “We spent a lot of time aligning the panels.”
After preparation, the bodyshell went to Thompson Mackay’s Bodyshop, in Wideopen, in March 2015 for painting in Old English White.
Upon its return, while fitting the refurbished fuel tank, Cromarty jacked up the car and, as he was pulling out an axle-stand, the jack failed.
“Bang! It went straight up into the pristine spare wheel well,” he recalls. “Mattie came straight round and pulled a Porta Press hydraulic body press out of the boot of his Ford Ka. He spent 10 minutes putting in spacers and lining it up, then told me to press the button.
“There was another loud bang and he said: ‘Oh no, it’s split… it’s knackered.’ I looked under and there wasn’t a mark – I chased him round the garage!”
A new windscreen, and remanufactured drop glass, came from Pilkington, while the Webasto sunroof was restored with new headcloth by Newton Commercial.
The list of new and new-old-stock parts – including rear bumper, hubcaps, water pump, Armstrong Roadholder dampers, trunnions, uprights, steering rack, wheel cylinders and brake shoes, to name but a few – is incredible, running to some four pages.
Myrtle renovated all of the interior wood and EB Engineering rebuilt the carburettors, with new ethanol-friendly fuel pipes.
Remanufactured Morris 1000 van wheels came from CMS and a wiring harness from Autospark.
Reassembly took two years, and once it was complete the Riley went to Northumbrian Leather for retrimming, then RG Auto Specialist for a full stainless-steel exhaust.
The final job was fitting a Kenlowe fan. “I’ve had minor disagreements with some in the Owners’ Club,” says Cromarty, “who say they didn’t have them when new, but with modern fuel classics run hot. I also fitted a servo for improved stopping power.”
After seven years’ work, the Riley was finally finished. “Every part on it has been restored, replaced or remanufactured,” says Cromarty. And it’s not hyperbole: this is one of the cleanest and best-restored examples in existence.
With just 80 miles on the clock, it’s still being shaken down.
The interior, with Les Leston wheel, is charming and the upgraded 85bhp engine is a perky devil, with the ride reasonably sporting if somewhat bouncy. Even 55mph is 3000rpm, and above that it gets decidedly busy – despite the addition of Dynamat soundproofing – which has Cromarty considering another non-period addition: an overdrive.
The best bit, though, is the attention it gets – it’s the ultimate smile car, with a mesmerising effect on all it encounters.
So has he enjoyed the process? “Yes, but some of it has been really bad. They’re quite simple-looking cars, but not the best to work on.”
And what about that original proclamation that they’re really cheap to do? “No comment.”
“It’s been worth it, though,” he concludes. “I love everything about it, and I’ve made some interesting friends. Front grille man is still phoning me. One day a big tube arrived with brown paper saying: ‘Your old carpets, can you just trace them out?’ Marshal and his wife Marina have been over, and via another ad I spoke to someone in Chester-le-Street who knew him. He’d sold some wings to ‘a guy in Ireland’. Were they pink? ‘Yeah.’ Marshal Fenton? ‘Yeah.’ I explained they were now on a Wolseley 1500 in Epsom.”
Cromarty makes no apologies for what he sees as sensible upgrades to the car: “I wanted a reliable classic that keeps up with traffic and that we can get in and use – time will tell if that is true.”
After all that graft, is it time to ease off and settle into that life of contented retirement, enjoying the odd spin in the One Point Five?
Perish the thought: this retiree requires stimulation. “I can feel a Capri coming on,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s my era.”
Images: Jonathan Jacob